Neil McNicholas: We need to be aware of the vulnerable

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NEARLY 30 years ago when I was studying for a degree in the United States, I was co-author of a research paper on the subject of loneliness and the elderly. The Yorkshire Post’s current Loneliness campaign highlights the fact that loneliness continues to be a concern not just with regard to the elderly, but to people in all areas of our society.

From time to time in the news, we hear very tragic stories of people having died in their homes and only being discovered some time later. Once upon a time, when families remained together and neighbours were closer than they tend to be today, such a situation would never have happened. It’s a sad state of affairs when either someone no longer has any family, or they are only rarely visited by whatever family or friends they may have.

People often refer to times when no one locked their doors, neighbours were constantly in and out of one another’s houses, and everyone knew everyone else and looked out for one another. Nowadays we tend to be more isolated, more private, our homes surrounded by walls and fences and our doors firmly locked as they have to be in the times in which we live. Where at one time we would have known almost everyone in our street, now we may perhaps not even know the people living right next door to us. We live mutually exclusive lives in which our business is our own and we guard and protect ourselves from the intrusion of others.

Having said that, many people are quite content with their own company and don’t have a wide circle of friends or a packed social calendar. Others may have become somewhat isolated over the years as family members moved away and visits became less and less frequent. People can also lose touch with friends – some may have died.

What I think we need to bear in mind is that being alone and loneliness are not the same thing: the absence of other people is not necessarily a negative situation. Loneliness depends on how a person experiences being isolated from others and from other social supports and activities. Living alone or having few social contacts, doesn’t automatically result in someone being, or feeling, lonely.

As a Catholic priest, and depending on what is happening from day to day, I can sometimes spend considerable portions of the day completely on my own (as many people do who may be widowed or retired or otherwise living on their own). I am quite happy on my own and, while there may be times I am delighted to be meeting with someone before I lose the art of conversation, or the opportunity to have dinner with friends comes along, I can’t recall any time when I have felt lonely as such – alone undoubtedly, but lonely no.

It is important for providers of human services, as well as for friends and neighbours, to be aware of the possible onset of loneliness (as opposed to simply being alone) so that appropriate steps can be taken to combat social and emotional isolation if that is the person’s actual experience. If in doubt – ask.

You may have seen the wonderful episode of Last of the Summer Wine in which the gang is deputed to take the local retired vicar out for the day – but he really doesn’t want to go because people are always feeling sorry for him and taking him out! They spend the day trying to ensure he will enjoy himself or else, and he spends it trying to escape their well-intentioned efforts. It illustrates the problem of other people projecting their concerns and expectations onto someone else without asking them how they feel or what they want.

The more our society becomes a collection of individuals increasingly isolated from, and not really known to, their neighbours, we need to be particularly aware of, and concerned for, one another and especially the more vulnerable. Who are our neighbours? Are there any people in our street or block of flats living on their own? Are they infirm or housebound? If so, do we know if they are visited regularly by family or care services? Do we have any contact with them to know whether they could use our help in anyway? Have we offered them our phone number in case they need anything? We may feel as if we are minding people’s business or are afraid they may feel we are – but there are ways of explaining our intentions and concerns and hopefully they will be accepted and appreciated.

Better to have tried and had our efforts politely (I hope) refused than not to have tried at all and then for some tragedy or other to occur and for everyone to be left asking “How could this happen?”